“Perfect families do not exist. This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is ‘forged’ by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences. Love is born and constantly develops amid lights and shadows.” — Pope Francis
We don't get to choose our kids. Yet as I consider our nine children, I see they were perfectly chosen. Each brings a different personality and a unique perspective to our family life.
My husband and I didn't set out to have nine children. In fact, if someone had told me after our first child was born that I would have eight more, I would have laughed at them. Yet throughout our marriage, we have tried to discern God's will and have remained open to life. So here we are today: child #1 is twenty-six years old and child #9 is six.
Raising a large family is not easy. Along with the different personalities and unique perspectives comes inevitable conflict and stress. There are plenty of challenges. Yet blessings abound.
In anticipation of writing this blog post, I posed the following question to my children (via text message to the older ones not living at home): What is your favorite thing about growing up in a large family?
While there were the predictable answers such as "Life is never dull" and "There is always someone to play with or to talk to," there were also answers I didn't expect. So, sharing these responses, talking to my husband, and offering my own experience as the mother of this large crew, I've come up with the following unexpected blessings of a large family. (There are many more but sticking with nine somehow seemed appropriate.)
#1. In a big family...there is a lot of diversity.Eleven different personalities is a lot of personality. It continues to amaze me how different each child is from the next. In our family, we have extroverts and introverts. We have strong personalities and quiet ones. We have kids who like a more structured environment, and kids who thrive on spontaneity. Child #5 (Annie) once told me that she thinks this is why she has so many different kinds of friends. She said she genuinely likes all sorts of people.
In all families, big or small, there are built-in opportunities to grow in humility. With the many personalities comes inevitable disagreements. Yet while arguing is a part of family life, so is forgiveness.
I once read an article by the father of a large brood who described life in a big family as a place where there is an abundance of "human interaction." I hope this means that my children will be able to get along with others regardless of who they are or what temperament they have. Inevitably with a large family there are kids who"mesh" well together and those who don't...but in the end, they have to get along.
#2. In a big family...we learn to flex our muscles.Life in a big family isn't for sissies. We develop a certain toughness...even the mom! (Especially the mom.) Whether the boys are practicing boxing moves on each other or the kids are jumping off the top of the staircase onto a mound of pillows on the floor below (each judging the other's crash landing), kids in a big family sort of become "toughies."
When one of the kids is whining about this or that, my husband will often ask them, "Are you a toughie or a wimpie?" This always makes them laugh because there is really only one answer in our family: "A toughie, Dad!"
I guess a thick skin is required when you live with so many siblings.
While they are "toughies," I've recognized a certain empathy that comes along with living in a large family as well. The kids look after each other.
One of the greatest joys of parenting a big family is watching the older children with the younger ones. Child #1 and child #9 are twenty years apart, but Charlie (#1) has always tried to be present to his younger siblings, even though he hasn't lived at home for a long time.
He, along with Thomas (twenty-two years old) and Peter (twenty years old) love to take the younger kids to Panthers' football games or to Hornets' basketball games when they are home in Charlotte. Let's just say they take their role of solidifying Hetzels in the Carolina fan base very seriously. This always warms my heart.
#3. In a big family...we learn to laugh at ourselves.Over the years we have learned not to take life too seriously.
My mom gave me the greeting card pictured below for my birthday a number of years ago. I still have it hanging on my refrigerator. The kids in the picture seem totally oblivious to the desperate state of their mother, which of course I find quite humorous. I love this card because it reminds me to laugh when I can, if at all possible. And usually it helps.
There will be hardships and sorrows in this life. In a large family they can sometimes appear to be multiplied, but learning how to laugh at ourselves is one of the best ways to deal with the inevitable disappointments and frustrations of life.
Pope Benedict XVI said, "Where joylessness reigns and humor dies, Jesus Christ is assuredly absent."
#4. In a big family...there is a built-in support network (in other words, always someone to borrow money from.)As my kids have gotten older and as some have left home, I am pleasantly surprised at how much they stay in contact with each other and how connected they are to each other's lives. These days there is a lot of negative press about the consequences of technology, but one of the good things about it is that families can stay connected more easily. Group texts keep us aware of things happening both at home and away from the home.
And support comes in many ways. When I asked my kids what their favorite thing was about life in a big family, one of them responded, "Someone always has your back." Another one said, "There is always someone to borrow money from."
Sharing is a natural part of life in a big family. Of course along with this comes the inevitable griping: "Grace owes me ten bucks," or "John owes me five."
Yet when someone asks me for money, which I typically don't have, I am grateful there is usually someone else who has it!
#5. In a big family...life isn't always fair."It's not fair!" is probably the universal slogan of children, regardless of the size of their families.
In our family it goes something like this:
"C.C. got more than me.""How come I didn't get a bike when I turned nine and Thomas did?""Why do I have to do the dishes and Sam gets to play outside?""How come she got the last piece of cake and I didn't get any?" (Child #2 is named Mary Kate and my husband and I still remember calling her Mary Cake for reasons mentioned in this comment)
After years of parenting nine children, I've discovered a positive correlation to the fact that life in a big family is often unfair. By sheer virtue of this fact, a certain gratitude emerges, whether it is actually sought or not. Because it is not really expected, there is sometimes a sort of gracious surprise that accompanies the tiniest thing.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that “...thanks are the highest form of thought, and...gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
In other words, when a child opens the refrigerator hoping against hope that there might still be a piece of cake in there, a spark of gratitude will be ignited when he finds one.
In an article entitled The Structure of Gratitude, David Brooks explained that "Gratitude happens when some kindness exceeds expectations, when it is undeserved."
This is not to say that kindness is unexpected in a big family, but when it is experienced, it is graciously noted.
#6. In a big family...you can almost always find something to eat in the 15-passenger van.I can't tell you how many times I have invoked the "no food in the van" rule. Too many times to remember.
But inevitably, we will be on our way from one activity to another and the kids need "refueling." So "just this once," we need to eat in the van.
I'm not sure if it is a blessing or a curse that the front seat of a 15-passenger van is so far away from the back seat. Often I have no idea what is growing way back there, but it could probably feed at least a few of the neighbor kids. At least I don't have to worry about my kids going hungry on the way to whatever it is we are late for.
#7. In a big family, parents have an active prayer life...because we are often on our knees.Parenting is more humbling than I thought it would be.
As the mother of nine children, I have become a huge believer in guardian angels and in the intercession of St. Anthony (the patron saint of lost items.) I also have had to learn to give up whatever control I thought I had and give it to God, who ultimately loves my children even more than I do.
I wrote about motherhood on my blog at www.9kidfitness.com where I said, "The vocation of motherhood comes with many graces, and on this I rely constantly for strength. Part of becoming a little worn and tattered in motherhood is that we are forced to rely more on faith and less on ourselves."
To me this reliance on faith is a relief. Prayer is an inevitable part of our life as parents. I don't know where I would be without it.
#8. In a big family, there is a lot of noise...and it's mostly a joyful sound.As I mentioned in point #5, arguing is part-and-parcel of a big family. But so is laughter.
On any given afternoon, I can close my eyes and hear the sound of children playing. It is ever so sweet.
As my children grow older and there are fewer younger children around, I know this is the sound I will miss the most. I am hopeful that it will eventually be replaced by the sound of grandchildren (which, my "grandparent" friends tell me, contains another quality altogether...and a sweetness all its own.)
Which brings me to point #9.
#9. In a big family...there is a lot of love to go around.And that love flows in multiple directions. From the parents to the kids, from the kids to each other and from extended family as well, there is plenty of love to go around.
The other day I caught a glimpse of my husband as he was cutting Sam's (child #9) hair. I thought about the parenting journey we have shared. As I looked at his handsome face, I was overcome with love and gratitude for his friendship, his companionship, and his leadership along the way. While I might not have planned for this busy life with nine kids, and while it hasn't always been easy, I wouldn't change a thing.
Each family, no matter the size, is unique. What are the blessings of your unique family?
How has God blessed you, your spouse, and your children?
I'd love to hear about your own journey in the comments below!